Anyone who started writing about a possible demise of the 3-year-old stakes races at the Fair Grounds as no longer being a relevant stop on the road to the Kentucky Derby needs to break out the eraser and do a quick rewrite on that story because the Risen Star Stakes on Saturday is as strong as any 3-year-old stakes race run so far this year.
The Fair Grounds has had some issues over the past few years but attracting quality 3-year-olds to the stakes program is not one of them.
Trainers and owners of 3-year-olds have always looked to the Fair Grounds as an alternative route for top 3-year-olds that winter in Florida for different reasons. Some quality 3-year-olds are hindered by the speed-favoring track down in Miami at Gulfstream Park and their owners and trainers look to other tracks — like the Fair Grounds — to make sure their horses are given the best shot to get down the road to the Kentucky Derby.
One such trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, is shipping the regally bred horse Imperia in for the Risen Star. Owned by leading outfit Godolphin Racing and ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith, Imperia hopes to build upon his narrow loss in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Imperia’s running style — which is more of a patient style of running with an affinity to make one big run — will be helped by the fairness of the Fair Grounds dirt track — at least that is the thinking by the connections.
Another reason horses who winter and train in southern Florida will ship out of their home base to the Fair Grounds is to avoid other big-name horses trained by the same trainer. McLaughlin has four horses he is trying to keep separated before the Derby.
Another trainer looking to keep his potential starts apart is Todd Pletcher, whose barn is literally jammed pack of potential Derby winners. One of those is JS Bach, who notched his first win at Gulfstream with a front-running win in a maiden race.
California-based jockey Rafael Bejerano will ride JS Bach. Keen Ice, from the barn of Dale Romans, and owned by Donegal Stable also ships in from Gulfstream and should like the longer Fair Grounds stretch.
A California shipper trained by Peter Miller, St. Joe Bay, also will contest the Risen Star after running second to sharp last out winner Prospect Park. St. Joe Bay might be getting out of California to avoid running against the sharp Dortmund who is favored by many to win the Kentucky Derby.
In the past, owners and trainers simply ran their horses where they were based without thinking too much about shipping to other tracks. After the advent of a system that limited the Derby starters to 20 based on earnings, the game changed and owners started shopping for the easiest spots.
Now, with the rule that limits Derby starters to the top 20-point earners, the strategy of spotting your horse in the right place to earn the necessary points becomes more and more important. And, the Fair Grounds has benefitted.
The past two editions of the Risen Star has produced not only Kentucky Derby second-place finishers but also the winners of the Preakness and the Belmont in the form of Oxbow and Palace Malice.
The local contingent is extremely strong and is headed by International Star who won the LeComte Stakes for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. War Story, the second place finisher in the LeComte Stakes draws the services of Louisiana native Kent Desormeaux after his mount, Texas Red, wasn’t able to make the race.
The Risen Star offers a healthy 50 points to the winner who is likely guaranteed a spot in the starting gate with a win on Saturday.
The fillies are also in the spotlight on Saturday, and there is no debate about how important a start in the Rachel Alexandra or the Fair Grounds Oaks has been for fillies that have won the Kentucky Oaks. Amazingly, six out of the past 10 winners of the Fair Grounds Oaks have won the Kentucky Oaks and those winners include last year’s Rachel Alexandra Stakes winner Untapable.
This year’s running of the Rachel Alexandra, which is the prep for the Fair Grounds Oaks, is one of the strongest editions this handicapper has ever seen. It is likely that the winner of the Fair Grounds Oaks and the subsequent Kentucky Oaks will come out the field we will see on Saturday.
Headed by Silverbulletday winner I’m a Chatterbox, this filly will be seriously challenged by a couple of shippers. Angela Renee, a Grade one winning filly from the Todd Pletcher barn and Top Decile, the Breeders Cup Juvenile Filly second place finisher look very strong. Other challengers with real credentials and chances to win include West Coast Belle, Shook Up — who is trained by Steve Asmussen and Forever Unbridled.
The Rachel Alexandra Stakes is one of the strongest 3-year-old filly races ever assembled and it would be no surprise to see multiple Grade 1 winners come from this stellar field.
Odds are that racing fans on Saturday will see many of the contestants in both the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
It is also likely that Louisiana fans might also catch a glimpse of the winner of both of those prestigious events on Saturday at the Fair Grounds.